Brexit White Paper published: Broad strokes, light on detail

No customs union, everything else TBD

The UK government has published its long-awaited white paper on negotiating a withdrawal from the European Union.

Number 10's 77-page paper [PDF] mixes a list of desired outcomes in business and technology with the government's existing statements on national plans. The paper is light on detail but big on statements and broad of stroke.

Published less than 24 hours after MPs voted to let the government actually trigger Article 50, the paper reestablishes what leavers believe will be their trump card: the importance to the remaining EU27 of access to the UK market and an implicit threat to their fortunes should they lose access as a result of talks.

The risk goes both ways of course as, time after time, the government's paper reiterates a desire for "frictionless" trade between the UK and EU post-Brexit.

The wording of the paper is clear: the UK will leave the customs union. However, the government is wobbling on immigration and foreign students.

The paper praises the benefits to the UK economy and research base of those working and studying here. What's clear, however, is that the government is still very much deciding what to do on a range of issues.

On immigration – foreign workers and students coming to the UK – the government is "considering very carefully the options that are open to us". Businesses and communities will have the "opportunity to contribute their views" with Parliament playing an "important role" on legislation.

In a statement likely to win favour among businesses but alarm the Daily Mail and Express wing, the government said whatever happens won't happen overnight. Rather a "phased" approach may be introduced to give businesses and individuals time to plan and prepare.

An "early priority" is establishing the status of EU nationals already in the UK and EU citizens living in the 27. As in other parts of the paper the government is "talking to stakeholders" as part of its preparations for deciding what to do.

On services, excluding finance, the government will "be aiming for the freest possible trade in services between the UK and EU member states".

The government's stance on the Digital Single Market is not clear. Just a single sentence was dedicated to the 2015 initiative on online access and data protection, and that was only a reference.

On telecoms, the government said it will "want to ensure that UK telecoms companies can continue to trade as freely and competitively as possible with the EU and let European companies do the same in the UK". The paper downplays the role of EU standards harmonisation, claiming that "in many cases" EU rules are based on global requirements.

The UK will continue to work in international organisations while "our new partnership should allow for tariff-free trade in goods that are as frictionless as possible between the UK and the EU member states".

The government will retain General Data Protection Regulation, it seems, although it didn't name-check GDPR, due in May 2018.

"As we leave the EU, we will seek to maintain the stability of data transfer between EU member states and the UK," the paper said.

On science and research, the government reiterated plans for an extra £2bn on R&D by 2020/21. Also emphasised was the promise to continue funding Horizon 2020 projects while Britain remains an EU member. As for the future? The document outlines the UK's part in EU programmes such as Gallileo and Copernicus.

However, the paper added: "We would welcome the agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives."

What ever happens, though, will come down to trade.

Here the paper talks softly but clearly carries a big stick. The government claimed the EU has more to lose in exports of goods and services to the UK than vice versa, even though the EU is the UK's single biggest export market – citing Q3 ONS data.

However, it's US, China, Russia and Switzerland that dominate the EU's top-three trading partners on imports and exports.

The government said it will "seek a new customs arrangement with the EU" although the paper claimed the existence of a "number of options for any new customs arrangement, including a completely new agreement, or for the UK to remain a signatory to some of the elements of the existing arrangement".

What happens "will be the subject of negotiation".

"It is in the interest of both the UK and the EU to have a mutually beneficial customs arrangement," the paper said.

"We will not be seeking membership of the Single Market, but will pursue instead a new strategic partnership with the EU, including an ambitious and comprehensive Free Trade."

As for post-Brexit trade: “Work is under way to define the government’s approach to trade policy. In due course, the government will want to consult business and other interested parties on the detailed positions to adopt."

Whatever details are added next will be over to MPs, who have tabled amendments to this draft legislation. ®

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